(This article was first published in the Gateway Gardener November 2010 issue)
By Mara Higdon
Seed saving is a fun and economical way of providing seed for next year. To keep it simple, start with vegetables that have self-pollinating perfect flowers. Examples include peppers, tomatoes, green beans, sugar snap peas, eggplant, and lettuce. These vegetables’ flowers have both female (stigma) and male (anther) organs on the same flower. For a flower to be pollinated, the pollen from the anther makes contact with the stigma. Other vegetables such as radish, cucumbers, squash and spinach have imperfect flowers that are either male or female. It is necessary to plant other plants of the same species close by to ensure fertilization. If, however, a plant of the same family (different species) is planted in the same garden there is a chance for cross-pollination, which could possibly lead to undesirable fruit the following year.
For the home garden, I recommend keeping it simple at first. You can stick to growing only one variety in the garden. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, you can pollinate those vegetables with imperfect flowers with a small paintbrush. Take the pollen from the anther and lightly brush the stigma with the pollen. To keep cross pollination from happening, you can loosely tie a small square of pantyhose over the hand pollinated female flower until the fruit starts to grow. Due to the time it takes, you would do this with vegetables that have larger flowers such as squash or other larger vining plants.
Peppers – Allow pepper to become fully ripe on the plant. This means letting the pepper change color – green peppers are not “fully ripe”. Cut out seeds and lay them on a plate or paper towel to dry.
Tomatoes – Allow to fully ripen on the vine. Cut in half, as you would to section a grapefruit. Dig or squeeze out seeds into a glass or jar, get the juice too, and add a little water. Now, let the mixture sit for a 3-6 days. It will ferment and start to mold. Stir once daily. This process mimics what occurs inside a rotting tomato, which will eliminate the jelly coat around the seeds. Rinse seeds thoroughly and lay out to dry.
Green Beans/Sugar Snap Peas – Leave on vine until shells become brown. Harvest before they start to split open. Lay out to fully dry.
Eggplant – Harvest eggplant after it’s prime when it turns an ugly brown yellow. Cut up the butt of the fruit and place it in a blender. Add water to double volume and strain. Rinse seeds and lay out to dry.
Lettuce – Only harvest outside leaves for consumption. Plants will bolt (flower), as day length gets longer so seeds must be saved from spring plantings. Slit firmer heads to allow seed stalks to grow through the top. Harvest seeds 12-14 days after flowering.
Radish – Do not harvest all of your radishes. Keep them in the ground and seedpods will form in no time. Harvest seed when pods are dry. (Plant seed saving radishes among cucumbers to ward off cucumber beetle.)
Cucumbers – Leave on vine until fat and yellow. Ferment seeds (see tomatoes) for two days. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.
Squash – Allow to fully ripen on the vine. Rinse seeds well, and allow to dry.
Spinach – Only harvest outside leaves for consumption. Plants will bolt (flower), as day length gets longer so seeds must be saved from spring plantings. Allow seeds to dry on or off the plant.
Once the seeds are dry, place the seeds in zip lock baggies, label and date and store in a shoe box in a cool, dark, dry place (under the bed or in a closet works well).
Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening Inc. You can reach her at (314) 588-9600, ext. 22.